Publication: Workspace Awareness in Real-Time Distributed Groupware

Real-time distributed groupware systems are computer applications that allow people to work together at the same time, but from different places. These systems provide shared computational workspaces, akin to tabletops and whiteboards, where collaborators can manipulate work artifacts. Unfortunately, when compared with working face-to-face, collaboration through groupware seems clumsy, stilted, and artificial. One of the problems with current groupware systems is that they make it difficult for people to stay aware of one another. Awareness is taken for granted in everyday face-to-face environments, but when the setting changes to distributed groupware, many of the normal cues and information sources that people use to maintain awareness are gone.

Helping people maintain awareness of one another can improve the usability of groupware. In this research, I explore one kind of awareness called workspace awareness, and investigate techniques for supporting it in groupware interfaces. Workspace awareness is the up-to-the-moment understanding of another person's interaction with a shared workspace; it involves knowledge about such things as who is in the workspace, where they are working, and what they are doing. I investigate the use of workspace awareness in improving groupware usability by following a three-part process: operationalize the concept, apply it to the design of groupware interfaces, and evaluate the usability of resulting systems.

I operationalize workspace awareness using a conceptual framework and an analysis of the problems posed by current groupware systems. First, I construct a conceptual framework of workspace awareness that sets out the elements of knowledge that people track, the process by which they maintain awareness, and collaborative activities in which workspace awareness is useful. Second, I identify issues encountered in supporting workspace awareness in real-time distributed groupware, and describe the tasks that a designer must undertake—collecting, distributing, and displaying information—in order to support workspace awareness in a groupware system.

I apply this knowledge about workspace awareness to the design and construction of several example awareness displays. I concentrate on techniques that answer who, what, and where questions, and on approaches that provide awareness information in the context of the workspace. I also consider displays that show unseen parts of the workspace, and look specifically at one of these displays called the radar view.

I evaluate the effects of supporting workspace awareness in groupware in two studies: an exploratory usability study, and a controlled experiment. The usability study showed that awareness information is valuable in a realistic groupware system, and provided design feedback for improving the awareness displays. The primary results of the experiment are that information about others' locations and activities can significantly improve completion times and verbal efficiency for some types of tasks. Both studies also showed that participants greatly preferred systems where additional workspace awareness information was available. These results imply that supporting workspace awareness can improve groupware usability, and that groupware developers should change the way that they design multi-user systems. This research provides them with tools to effect that change.

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Participants

Carl Gutwin
University of Saskatchewan

Citation

Gutwin, C. 1997. Workspace Awareness in Real-Time Distributed Groupware. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Computer Science, University of Calgary.

BibTeX

@phdthesis {gutwin-phd,
author= {Carl Gutwin},
title= {Workspace Awareness in Real-Time Distributed Groupware},
year= {1997},
school= {Department of Computer Science, University of Calgary}
}